Portland Airport Seeks to Land JetBlue

Feb. 16, 2006
The company has indicated that it expects to add eight to 10 new destinations this year, and has already announced service to Austin, Texas; Richmond, Va.; and Hamilton, Bermuda.

Feb. 15--Portland airport officials are continuing their ardent pursuit of JetBlue Airways and hope their efforts will soon pay off with a serious commitment.

"They have a very strong interest in Portland," said Jeffrey W. Monroe, director of ports and transportation. "We are one of the cities they are strongly considering, and that's as much as they'll say to us. We've got our fingers and toes crossed."

An airline spokesman declined to say whether Portland is in JetBlue's expansion plans. The company has indicated that it expects to add eight to 10 new destinations this year, Bryan Baldwin said, and has already announced service to Austin, Texas; Richmond, Va.; and Hamilton, Bermuda.

Monroe said JetBlue officials have indicated that they expect to announce more expansions this month, although Baldwin said there is no timetable for those announcements. Monroe said he hopes the next list will include Portland International Jetport, where JetBlue would replace the low-cost carrier Independence Air, which went out of business in early January.

"We've been in continual conversations with them for over two years now," Monroe said. "We certainly are very hopeful and feel good about it but every time we get our hopes up, you know what happens."

JetBlue is one of the few airlines adding planes in an industry that's downsizing. Most airlines have been pulling equipment out of service and cutting back flights or dropping cities altogether. They're banking on filling more seats on the planes that they keep flying and figure higher passenger counts will support higher fares than have been the norm in the last few years.

JetBlue, unlike those other carriers, is adding 18 100-seat regional jets each year for the next six years. It will also add at least 17 Airbus A320 jets, which have 156 seats, each year and will build its fleet of 82 of those planes to 202 by the end of 2012.

Monroe said airline officials have visited Portland to look at the terminal and airport officials have made several pitches for adding the city to the route map. He said Portland officials have stressed that the city compares favorably to Burlington, Vt., which JetBlue currently services.

JetBlue is a low-cost carrier, and its entrance into the Portland market could help cut fares, particularly to New York, where it flies to its hub at JFK International. JetBlue's round-trip fare to fly today from Burlington to JFK, if a ticket was purchased Tuesday on the Web, was $248, with a return flight Friday. Delta, by comparison, would charge $552 for the same itinerary purchased a day in advance.

Monroe said flights to JFK would not only give a passenger links to the other three dozen cities that JetBlue serves, but an array of international flights.

"JFK is a very aggressive international airport, and there's a whole realm of choices there," he said.

Fares from Portland on other carriers have been steady to slightly up since the departure of Independence Air, Monroe said, but airport officials are worried about the loss of seats caused by other airlines switching to smaller aircraft. Adding another airline would ease some of that crunch, they said, and give Portland an established low-cost carrier, rather than a startup like Independence Air.

Like most airlines, JetBlue lost money last year and expects to again this year because of high fuel prices. But the loss in 2005 of $9.8 million was minuscule compared to the hundreds of millions in losses reported by some other airlines.

Monroe said that if JetBlue begins flying to Portland, city officials may have to fast-track expansion plans at the airport. The city has been considering adding more than 1,200 spaces with a new parking garage and also envisions adding five more gates to the 11 already at the airport. Expansion also would allow the security area to be expanded from three lanes to four lanes, Monroe said.

"If JetBlue comes in, the potential for a larger number of new passengers through the airport is accelerated," he said, making expansion feasible.